Geoff Neal previews Stephen Thompson bout, opens up on recent health scare

UFC’s No. 11-ranked welterweight Geoff Neal talks about his recent fight with congestive heart failure and gives his thoughts on what to expect Saturday when he battles Stephen Thompson in the UFC Vegas 17 main event.

Video Transcript

[CROWD AMBIENCE]

KEVIN IOLE: Hey, folks. Welcome to Yahoo Sports. I am Kevin Iole. And my guest today is a guy that you haven't seen in a little bit of a while, but he's going to be in a big fight on Saturday. He's made quite a name for himself so far in the UFC. The number-11 ranked welterweight Geoff Neal. Geoff, on Saturday, at Apex is going to be fighting Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson in the main event. How does that sound to hear you're fighting the main event against the number 5 contender, Geoff?

GEOFF NEAL: It's pretty cool. You know, it's pretty cool. You know, growing up watching the UFC and training to be in the UFC, now I'm in there fighting on the main event, seeing posters with my face on them. It's pretty cool.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah, I would say.

GEOFF NEAL: [LAUGHS]

KEVIN IOLE: After your last fight, last year-- UFC 245 against Mike Perry-- and that was a huge knockout. Mike had a big reputation at the time. So kind of a big win for you. And everybody thought that was going to propel you into a big 2020. Of course, we had that COVID situation. You actually got COVID, but what was really scary about it is we started hearing reports that you were in a fight for your life. Fill us in on sort of your health situation-- what happened, and how long it took you to really get back to normal where you're able to fight again.

GEOFF NEAL: Yeah. Pretty much what happened, just to make it clear, the fight for my life situation wasn't COVID-- wasn't caused by COVID. Or maybe it was, because I had COVID-- I got COVID back in June.

KEVIN IOLE: OK.

GEOFF NEAL: So then I got over that, tested negative, started feeling great, feeling way better. And then it got to-- there was-- I was getting ready for the Neal Magny fight. I signed a fight for-- signed a contract for fight with him. And I sparred on the Tuesday. The next day, I woke up with a super bad headache. And I thought it was from a concussion, because we sparred pretty hard the day before. And it was a super bad headache, and my neck was super stiff.

So I went to my team doctor thinking it was like a concussion. And he said it was a headache from a stress-related headache from my neck being so stiff. And the next day I woke up with a 104 fever, and the headache was worse. And then it progressively kept on getting worse and worse.

Like it got to the point where I was like throwing up. I couldn't keep anything down. I have really bad diarrhea. It was-- the throwing up was so bad that I can even drink water. Like I would drink water, and then I would have to get up like 10-20 minutes later to throw up. Like it was constant throwing up like the whole day.

I didn't sleep. I couldn't sleep, from Tuesday-- from Thursday to like Sunday, when I finally got admitted to the ICU, I was up all night, because like once I go to sleep, I had to get up. What'd you say?

KEVIN IOLE: Before you go on, just what were you thinking was wrong with you? So you first thought, maybe a concussion, and then the doctor saying stress. What did you think it was?

GEOFF NEAL: I got to-- I did a lot of Googling. Like I was looking up all my symptoms. And the first thing that pops up was meningitis, because there's two. There's bacterial, and there's viral. One of them-- one of them is probably going to kill you. The other one, you just got to take antibiotics to kind of like get over it.

But I thought it was one of those forms of meningitis. But I had no idea. Like I would go back and forth at a doctor. And they would do blood tests, and nothing came back. So that's why I really thought it was meningitis, because the only way you can see if you have meningitis is to get a long-ass needle stuck up your back.

[LAUGHING]

And I don't want to do that. But it got to the point--

KEVIN IOLE: [INAUDIBLE] other people.

GEOFF NEAL: Yeah. But it got to the point where I was legit dehydrated from all the throwing up and diarrhea that I had. I felt like death. I couldn't do-- I couldn't go on any more. I was like, I need to get to a like a Care Now.

And mind you, I've been going to hospitals back and forth that whole period. I went to like four hospitals. They had no idea what was wrong with me. So I was like, I can't-- I'm not going to check myself into an emergency room just for them send me home.

So I just went to a Care Now, just to get some IV's done, because I was dehydrated. And then when they hooked me up to the blood pressure machine, it was dangerously low. And they started freaking out. I fe-- I felt bad, but I didn't feel that bad, because they were legit running around, calling people, like, hey, I need you here. They hooked me up, they put like three IVs. And they did something to where the IV's just like squirting inside your veins.

And after that, I was unresponsive for like 15 minutes. I don't remember that part. But they said I was like-- I don't know if I was having to sei-- I don't know what they were telling me. But I was pretty much unresponsive. And, uh--

KEVIN IOLE: Oh, my god.

GEOFF NEAL: The next thing I remember, I woke up. And I was in the back of the ambulance, and they were driving me to the hospital to get checked into the ICU. It was pretty wild.

KEVIN IOLE: So I mean, obviously you're a world class athlete. You're in better shape than like 99.99% of all humans. If it had happened to somebody-- if somebody else not in the kind of shape you are in, did your conditioning save you? Is that-- did anybody tell you that?

GEOFF NEAL: I'm almost sure. They didn't tell me that, but I'm pretty sure. Because like especially the things that were going on with my heart. Like I end up getting discharged with congestive heart failure. For as long as I went without getting any answers and having to just like tough it out myself, like, yeah, I think if somebody that wasn't in shape and that was like just unhealthy, they probably would have got taken out, if they were to take that long that as long as I took. You know?

KEVIN IOLE: I know you're a fighter, and so you're going to say, I love to fight, and it's your job. But if you have somebody tell you, you have congestive heart failure, it's like, why are you going in a cage and doing this? Like what was your thought process? Did you ever consider, OK, maybe I'm done. I can't do this.

GEOFF NEAL: No, I never considered it. I just kept a positive outlook. When they were telling me-- like the doctor told me, like, I don't know if will be able to fight again. And I just looked at him and laughed. I was like, OK, no. Like that's not happening. Um-- yeah, it never crossed my mind. Like this is what I do. I knew I would recover. Like I had no doubt in my mind that I would recover.

Despite their doubts, they were trying to-- they were trying to get me a vest, this like shock vest. It's like, if my heart rate like stops or drops below a certain thing, it would send a shock to my body, or wake my heart back up. And I was like, no, I'm not doing that. And he's like, no, you need to do this. You might die. I'm like, no, I'd rather die. No, I didn't mean to say that. But--

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

GEOFF NEAL: --had to weigh my options. Yeah, it's like weight vest-- or shock vest or maybe die. Like I'm not doing the shock vest thing my whole life.

KEVIN IOLE: So, Geoff, how long was it before you got normal? And did you ever get a specific diagnosis? Like did they ever tell you, this is what it was, and it's treatable, or it'll go away after all--

GEOFF NEAL: Yeah. Yeah, they never gave me a diagnosis of what really happened. What caused the congestive heart failure, what caused the sepsis, that's still pretty unknown. Like I said, it could have been meningitis. Because I didn't get tested for that. Or it could have been-- or it could have been a bad tooth.

After I got out of the hospital, I got a tooth taken out. Because I was looking up stuff. And it was like, if you have a bad tooth and it gets infected, it can get in your blood stream. So it was like that being crazy.

KEVIN IOLE: Go to the dentist, everybody.

GEOFF NEAL: Yeah, please go to the dentist. Because it was a bad tooth, but it wasn't hurting. I knew it was bad. I knew it was messed up. But it wasn't bothering me at all. So I was like, eh, I'll be fine. I can wait.

KEVIN IOLE: Dude, that's incredible. So when were you-- where you felt like, OK, I'm Geoff again. And I can fight, and you can start thinking about that kind of thing. How long after you first went to the hospital before you were really back to the old Geoff?

GEOFF NEAL: Yeah. So let me see. When-- I got discharged like somewhere in like August, at the end of August. And I pretty much spent the whole month of August in my apartment, not doing anything. I finally got back in the gym around like September, October-ish. And it kind of-- it took me a little bit. When I first got in, Like nothing felt the same. I'm constantly checking my heart rate.

And more of it was just fear. It was like my heart really might stop if I push it too hard, but the more comfortable I got, the more my body got used to being back in the gym, the harder I started working. And then once I got this fight, I was got-- caught the news of the fight. Like I was already in the gym full swing, you know I mean? I was starting to push it to the limit. And once I got the fight, that gave me even more motivation to really, really, really start grinding.

KEVIN IOLE: I know Dr. Jeff Davidson from UFC really takes care of you guys. And the Nevada Athletic Commission is strict. So did you have to get any-- given what happened to you, did you have to get any special approvals to be able to get licensed to fight?

GEOFF NEAL: Uh, no. I just had the normal stuff. I had to go get the-- I think I had to do another EKG. I don't know if that was normal or if that was for COVID. Because they said they added some stuff for COVID that you got to do. But I got another EKG done, and everything was normal. So I didn't have anything to extra.

KEVIN IOLE: OK. Well, thank God you're OK and here with us. Let's just talk about the fight. I mean, Stephen Thompson, an awkward guy to fight, difficult with the karate style and everything. Highly successful. You obviously-- you know, I was going to say, you're called "Hands of Steel," but I'm sure you get a lot of kicks and the kick knockouts and everything. So we've got to maybe alter that a little bit. But how do you see this fight going Do you think it's going to necessarily just be a stand-up fight, because of the way that two of you go. Or could it get to the ground?

GEOFF NEAL: Everything possible. I'm training. Like, in this case, we have to get into a wrestling exchange. But my mind right now is to beat him standing up. I don't want to waste energy trying to take him down. Because he's not-- he's not an easy person to keep down.

KEVIN IOLE: [INAUDIBLE]

GEOFF NEAL: Huh?

KEVIN IOLE: [INAUDIBLE].

GEOFF NEAL: Yeah. See, so it's like, boy, it would be stupid for me to waste my energy trying to take him down, and then him getting up, and then, oh, look at me. Now I'm tired. And then his striking will flourish after that.

So if a situation comes, opportunity comes, and I get an take down, yeah, I'll take it. Why not? But right now I'm really focused on what I'm good at and implementing that, and that's striking and punching people in face. [CHUCKLES]

KEVIN IOLE: I get a lot of different opinions to this question, people talking about the small cage. So you're going to fight at Apex, you're going to be in the 25-foot cage, as opposed to the 30-foot cage. Stephen's style as karate is such that moves around and uses a lot of the cage. I don't know that you necessarily use as much of the cage as he does. So does it favor you at all? Because he's not going to have that room to kind of swing away that he would if he had the bigger one.

GEOFF NEAL: Yeah. I mean, I think it does. It might not-- I-- I really don't want to add the cage as a part of my game plan and what I think is going to happen in the fight. It might. We'll see when we are in that cage.

I don't know how well he moves. He has great footwork. So it might not matter if it's a 50-foot cage or a 10 foot cage. He might still have good movement. He's real elusive, and he sees punches coming. So we'll see. Yeah, we'll see. I really don't know how much that's going to play a factor.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah. I covered almost every one of Floyd Mayweather's pro fights. And he could stand right in front of you, and you couldn't hit him. Because he was so good at the movements. So, yeah, who knows on that.

GEOFF NEAL: Yeah. Who knows?

KEVIN IOLE: What do you make-- I know Stephen's one of the nicest guys in the UFC. But he's kind of been-- first they talked to him about fighting to make love and he didn't want to fight [? Jumiah. ?] Then he got you. And I saw an interview this week where he gave that he was upset about the matchmaking and the way it's going, that you're too low for him. You don't do anything for him. And I don't think specifically he was dissing you. But, in a way, it is.

GEOFF NEAL: It is what it is.

KEVIN IOLE: --you're down in the thing. Well, how do you take that?

GEOFF NEAL: I mean, I take it for what it is. He's not he's not saying anything that's not really like true, per se. I'm number-- I'm the ranked number 11. I don't have like 50,000 followers. I don't have all these followers and stuff. So I get it. Like if I was in his-- if I was in his same position, I would feel and think the same thing. So I really can't fault him for what he says. But he signed the contract. [LAUGHS] He has to fight me now, so the hell with it.

KEVIN IOLE: So let's assume you get it get through this fight. I mean, I assume first thing you want to do is stay busy next year. But where do you see-- if you beat the number 5 guy, you've got to think you're going to move up. You'll be in the top 10 somewhere. That should set you up, I would think, pretty nicely for 2021, in terms of a win or two would put you right up there where you're looking at Usman or whoever holds the belt at some point.

GEOFF NEAL: Yeah. That's why I think I get I get this win on Saturday, it's really going to do wonders for my career. It's-- it's what I've been working for. And I wasn't expecting to get a fight like this But man, hell, I'll take it. I didn't-- I'm so surprised he even accepted the fight with me. But he did. And I'm grateful for it. And I just-- I have to get this job done on Saturday.

KEVIN IOLE: Before I let you go, a lot of people may-- and I think a lot of people do know this, that you came often in a contender series. And I wanted to ask you about that. When the ultimate fighter first came around, you know Lorenzo Fertitta, the former owner, and Dana used to talk a lot about this is the Trojan horse that gets everybody in.

But it seems like now the contender series is even producing better fighters than what the ultimate fighter was back in the day, right? You're getting guys to come in-- look at Kevin Holland the last week. People are talking to him now about Fighter of the Year. What do you think it is about that format that is so conducive to the UFC being able to get yourself-- you're 5-0 in the UFC now-- get these elite fighters, and-- and get them into contention fairly quickly?

GEOFF NEAL: Because it's really just about fighting. There's no smoke and mirrors, no bullshit. And like I don't know how the ultimate fighter was cast and maybe they would like intentionally cast people with like super strong and outlandish personalities that really weren't that good in the first place.

But-- and you have to-- like it's like-- it's pretty much like I look at it like a tryout. It's like you're trying out for the UFC. You're getting out there, and that's your shot. You got the matchmakers.

You got Dana White looking at you. And you got to show them what you can do. And they'll sign you based off of how well you look. And I really like it. I just feel-- I feel the frequency of it needs to go down a little bit more. Every week during the summer, eventually you're going to run out of top level fighters.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

GEOFF NEAL: It's just simple math. But I really like it. I do agree that it is bringing a lot of top-level, high-potential guys to the sport. So they need to keep it-- just some need to be tweaked. But right now, it's great.

KEVIN IOLE: I want to ask you this. Dana has a certain style of fighting he likes. He likes to go for the finishes and the high-action high energy. And that's not always the best game plan for some guys, right?

I think you're a solid fighter that you're mold fits what Dana likes. But you know he's there, you know with those matchmakers are looking at, does it influence the way when you were on the contender surge, did it influence the way you decided to approach the fight? Would you have approached it any differently if he hadn't been sitting there?

GEOFF NEAL: Honestly, no. Because when I got the call to fight on the contenders series, I had just fought, like-- so I fought on a Friday, and then the next Friday while I'm at work, because I went back to work after that fight, I get a call from my coach like, hey, what are you doing? I was like, I'm at work. He's like, leave right now. You need to get your medical blah-blah-blah done. You're fighting a contender this Tuesday.

But this is Friday, and I have to leave work and get everything like handled as far as medicals and stuff like that. Get on a plane on Saturday, and I get there. And I had the fight on Tuesday.

So, in my mind, I wasn't-- I didn't even have any really idea of what the contender series really was, I mean, I knew what I knew was big. But I didn't really know how big. And as far as like-- I just wanted to win the fight. I just got a week before, like I was like I'm just going to go in and win this fight. And it was 10 grand like the person, like 5-and-5. And five so like 10 grand at that time it was like, fuck yeah, I just want to win.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

10 grand was a lot of money compared to what you were getting paid on the regional circuit. That's like a lot of fight on a regional circuit, and I'm getting that one fight. Hell yeah.

KEVIN IOLE: So let's wrap with this. Since you came off the contender series, I think that the two people that most fans are discussing is the 2020 Fighter of the Year would be contender series alum Kevin Holland or Davidson Figueiredo, who is the flyweight champion. You've been around, you've seen these guys fight. If you had a vote, who are you picking for fighter of the year? Or is there somebody off the board, somebody different than those two?

GEOFF NEAL: I'm picking Kevin.

KEVIN IOLE: And--

GEOFF NEAL: Only because he beat me. We fought on the regional circuit one time. And he got he got to win over me. He's Fighter of the Year. Because if he's Fighter of the Year, he makes-- I'm runner-up.

[LAUGHS]

KEVIN IOLE: He beats [INAUDIBLE] and still [INAUDIBLE] going on.

[LAUGHING]

All right, brother. Well, on Saturday at Apex, you can see this young man, Geoff Neal, healthy and hail. And we are happy about that. Number 11 in the welterweight division. He will be fighting in the main event against Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson. Geoff, thank you so much. Look forward to seeing your fight.

GEOFF NEAL: No problem, man. Thank you brother.

KEVIN IOLE: Thank you, brother.